Accessibility links

Breaking News

Azerbaijan: Aliev's Health Stalls Closer Ties With Iran

By Michael LelyveldMichael Lelyveld

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's latest illness has again raised concerns about succession in the Caucasus nation. But for Iran, Aliev's recent surgery in the United States means another postponement of a state visit and uncertainty about a peace initiative that has been in the works for months.

Boston, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The health of President Aliyev has again forced the postponement of a planned trip to Iran, prolonging an uncertainty that has already lasted for two years.

Aliyev was first scheduled to visit Tehran in February 2000. Since then, the event has been delayed on countless occasions. In some cases, the cause has been illness. But just as often, unstable relations between the two countries has been to blame.

This time, the trip was scheduled for February after Aliev's appearance in New York to attend the World Economic Forum in late January. But it was put off when Aliev's stay was extended for medical treatment at the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S. Midwestern state of Ohio on 3 February

The 78-year-old leader has traveled to Cleveland repeatedly since his heart surgery there in May 1999. His planned checkups have been cloaked in secrecy, although they have taken place several times.

On 14 February, the president's press service announced that Aliyev had undergone prostate surgery and was expected to recover quickly. But as late as 11 February, Azerbaijan's embassy in Washington declined to disclose the nature of his ailment. The government let more than a week pass between Aliev's hospitalization and the first statement about the operation, prompting rumors in Azerbaijan.

On 18 February, Aliyev appeared on Azerbaijani TV Channel One in a taped statement from the hospital to reassure citizens at home. Aliyev said, "Let me reiterate that one of these days I will complete my treatment and return to the motherland. I know that you are concerned, but there is no reason to worry."

The government maintained similar silence when Aliyev was hospitalized in Cleveland for his heart operation in 1999 and again in 2000 for pneumonia.

This year, suspicions were raised as early as the first week of January when the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce announced that its annual conference in Washington in March would be addressed by the president's son and possible successor, Ilham Aliev. The event, which was rescheduled from September, was originally to be addressed by the senior Aliev.

But while the president's health raises sensitive issues of succession in Azerbaijan, it has also been problematic for neighboring Iran, which has looked forward to Aliev's visit as a diplomatic milestone. Historic ethnic tensions were aggravated in July when an Iranian gunboat confronted two Azerbaijani survey ships in a disputed Caspian oil field. The incident led to warnings from Turkey and put the region on edge.

Since then, Iranian and Azerbaijani officials have held a series of exchanges to prepare a package of 10 agreements for Aliyev to sign. It is unclear whether these differ substantially from the 12 agreements that were originally to be concluded during Aliev's visit two years ago. But the mostly-routine accords seem to have taken on importance for confidence-building since the Caspian rift.

Aliyev did travel to Tehran briefly in June 2000 with other leaders for a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization, but Iran's diplomatic effort to bring about a state visit has underscored its value as a tension-easing exercise.

For Azerbaijan, the issue of Aliev's trip to Tehran has been forgotten amid questions about his health. The cancellation may be of far greater concern to Iran, because the unsettled border may become a more pressing matter of security.

Although Iran has stalled a settlement of Caspian Sea borders for years while it seeks a bigger share of the resources, its apprehension seems to have increased on multiple fronts since the September terrorist attacks on the United States.

To the east, it now feels the presence of allied forces in Central Asia and Afghanistan, which has brought greater stability but also friction over U.S. and Iranian roles in the region. To the west, concerns have risen over a possible U.S. conflict with Iraq, as well as Iran's inclusion with North Korea in President George W. Bush's recent "axis of evil" speech.

Iran seems to have hoped for better news to the north with a warm reception for Aliyev and a declaration that there is no cause for conflict in the Caspian. Instead, both the Aliyev visit and a planned Moscow trip by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi were canceled. The reasons for the Russian postponement went unexplained.

Last week brought more diplomatic difficulty when Kharrazi was unable to arrange a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at a gathering of the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul.

The Iranian official news agency IRNA downplayed the omission as a scheduling issue, but it followed Iran's refusal to recognize Britain's choice of an ambassador to Tehran and an effective downgrading of relations to the level of charge d'affaires.

In a region filled with tensions and risks, the latest delay in Aliev's trip to Iran appears as no more than a footnote. But it leaves the future of a carefully laid Iranian peace initiative in doubt.

For weeks, the IRNA news agency said the visit would take place shortly after 9 February. That date was then replaced by 18 February.

As late as 11 February, an Iranian Embassy official in Baku insisted the trip would come at the end of the month. It was not until 13 February that Iran's ambassador suggested that the date "may change." Having raised expectations, both sides seem to have had trouble in calling it off.